'Loser' may yet win naval battle

Hopes rise for future of Scottish shipyard, reports Chris Blackhurst
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THE heightened awareness of the need for nuclear safety after the Chernobyl disaster may yet force the Government into one of the most embarrassing defence U-turns on record, and give the pounds 5bn contract for refitting Trident missile submarines to Rosyth, rather than Devonport which won it in 1993.

As the biggest Scottish industrial site, now the Ravenscraig steel-works have gone, Rosyth has a significance way beyond its location hard by the Firth of Forth road bridge. If Rosyth was to close, went the argument two years ago, the whole of Scotland would be dealt a crushing symbolic blow.

Rosyth lost that argument - the promise of overhauling surface naval ships in future was seen as a sop and not going any way towards appeasing the loss of the Trident work - but could still emerge victorious.

Ever since Chernobyl, the Government's Nuclear Installations Inspectorate has been rethinking atomic safety. Greater probability analysis of natural disaster such as an earthquake or extreme winds or man-made catastrophe like an aircrash is now the norm. Any building housing radioactive material is subjected to a far deeper degree of testing and inspection than before.

That heightened concern has already led to a mammoth rise in public expenditure on the new Trident operations base at Faslane on the Firth of Clyde. While the Government has been hauled over the coals by a National Audit Office investigation and subsequent Public Accounts Committee inquiry for the way in which the Faslane project was structured, that would be nothing as compared with the embarrassment it would suffer if the decision to refit nuclear submarines at Devonport is reversed.

There have been few political causes celebres in recent years to match the scrap two years ago for the right to refit the nuclear fleet. Both yards spent small fortunes on promoting their cause.No stone was left unturned, with frequent public point by point rebuttals of the other's arguments. In the end, Devonport won and Rosyth got a Whitehall-contrived booby prize of surface refits.

The final choice rested on a difference in long-term operating and capital costs between the two bids of just 1 per cent - a gap that was described as "well within the margin of error which would normally be discounted in a decision of such magnitude", said a subsequent Commons Defence Select Committee report. "It was unsafe to base a decision solely on this figure," concluded the powerful cross-party group of MPs.

Regardless of Rosyth having already consumed pounds 120m of public money on building a new Trident dock, the RD57, the Government went with Devonport's pounds 50m lower bid.

Converting Rosyth to take nuclear submarines under the new, more stringent saftey regime, would cost around pounds 300m - or pounds 420m in total, counting the money already spent on the RD57. DML, the company that runs Devonport, is thought to have initially put its own bill to upgrade its existing facilities at pounds 170m. That figure has now risen, to at least pounds 500m - well ahead of Rosyth's total and a long way behind in terms of time, as much of the huge RD57 is already built and lying idle.

The Government cannot say it was not warned. During the PR battle, Rosyth presented a detailed argument that, unlike its own brand-new structure, Devonport was choosing to rely on old foundations. "None of these were approved by the safety authorities or supervised under the strict control of a quality assurance system when they were built," the Rosyth management said at the time.

Fears about Devonport were aired during a Commons debate before the final decision by Bill Walker, Conservative MP for Tayside North, close to Rosyth. Devonport had a far higher local civilian population who would be exposed to any atomic fall-out, said Mr Walker. "A purpose-built earthquake-proof dry dock facility for nuclear submarines at Rosyth must surely be safer than a modified faciltiy at Devonport." On behalf of the Government, Jonathan Aitken, the then defence procurement minister, responded that safety issues would be taken into account.

Labour's defence spokesman, David Clark, yesterday called for an independent inquiry into the whole affair. "This is the biggest blunder in the MoD's history," he said. "It shows monumental mismanagement. The Government has been trying to play politics instead of taking a long, cool look at how best to deal with our nuclear deterrent."

His call is certain to be echoed when Parliament reconvenes next month. As the issue concerns public expenditure, a demand for an investigation by the National Audit Office, may be the least the Government can expect.